Is there really a lipstick jungle – some would say so.
For many women, organisations are not safe places. Not only are they more likely to be bullied by a man, but also by another woman. For many the lipstick jungle is real and bullying leaves indelible scars, ultimately impacting their long-term view of their future career progression. Forbes research suggests as many as a third of women leave the workplace entirely for one reason or another, with 24% indicating straight dissatisfaction. Certainly my sources cited bullying as a major influence. With all the challenges both professional and financial that women face, staying at home with the kids (74%) becomes an attractive option to those in untenable situations.
The pace of social change in the last 40 years seems to have left women, despite outstripping men academically, feeling uncertain on how to progress once they enter the workplace. With so-called high EQs, we think they intuitively know what to do, but all indications suggest they don’t. If they act like men, they’re damned. If they act like women, they’re damned too. This results in a maelstrom of confusion. Annabel Kaye reminded us that many bullies are not even aware of their behaviour and there is also a noticeable gap between management and political rhetoric and the realities of organisational life.
A further aspect of my research indicated that the support strategy many victims received from coaches generally focused on the healing process: restoration of confidence, letting go of anger and moving on, as well as responding with emotional intelligence. This is all essential, but all the women I was in touch with, without exception, went on to leave their organisations. The research also indicated that HR professionals and line management, despite paying lip service to ethical workplace practises, tend to respond only to hard facts and official complaints. So it seems that something is missing from the traditional process and that other more practical dimensions need to be added.
In the early days most victims I spoke to felt confused and intimidated by what was happening to them and quite often waited far too long before seeking support, sometimes many months down the line.
What is needed?
1 Creating an early, time bound, goal – related action plan is key and the earlier the better. If there is a gut feeling over a reasonable period of time that something isn’t right – then it probably isn’t…. somewhere. So investigate. Treat this sensation like any other malaise. A pain in the shoulder, a sore foot, a stomach ache. Would you sit there feeling increasingly debilitated by a physical symptom without investigation? No. Highly unlikely. We can’t sit there and wait for someone to step in and rescue us either – all indicators suggest that this is unlikely to happen.
2. Defining the context is necessary now. Facts talk. Finding out the guidelines for bullying behaviour in your geographic region, sector or company is a must. Do these companies have a grievance process or a written policy on respectful workplace practises? These are your benchmarks, so establishing what they are and being familiar with the content is important. Knowing your rights and precisely when they are being transgressed is also more empowering than “feeling” bullied. It also will tell you if the line has been crossed into harassment which is legally defined. If this is the case, seek legal and psychological support immediately.
3. Evaluation of personal performance is next and being clear that all aspects of performance and presence in the workplace are up to scratch. Somewhat contentiously, I actually don’t think that because a person feels bullied, that it necessarily means that they are. I received enough emails from managers, both men and women who struggled to cope with “emotional meltdowns ” from female employees. This is something we women have to work on. So try and get into business neutral.
4. Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.
5. Keeping a log of the incidents is one of the most significant things that can be done at this point. What is being established is a pattern of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. Most companies have formal channels for communicating performance or job related issues. This is another benchmark. Is the communication stepping outside these channels? If it is, times and dates should be noted. In addition to putting things into context for the victim, an audit trail and timeline for any future grievance or legal process and constructive dismissal is also being established.
6. Asking for detailed qualification is one sure way of deflecting verbal abuse and criticism in a calm and business neutral way. A common theme was that criticism was often emotive, imprecise and colloquial. Phrases including, heat and kitchens, stepping up, getting in the zone, knowing the door/score etc were commonly used. Counter that with specific questions” How do you suggest… ”
7. Paraphrasing is another great technique for reaching an understanding ” Have I understood correctly…” Confirming that in writing is essential. We have also learned that there is no point engaging with a bully head on. This is what they love, to bait a victim until they lash out inappropriately or get upset, especially if they have an audience. Then they really have a case against the victim. Somewhat incredulously, I have heard horror stories about computers and email accounts being hacked by bully bosses (as well as lockers and desks). Without seeming too “Nancy Drew” like, I would suggest sending a blind copy of any correspondence to a secure private email account and keeping a hard copy in a safe place outside the office.
8. Strategic Action
As an ex – corporate HR professional if any employee comes with a dossier of documented instances of abusive or inappropriate behaviour, they know they are obligated to investigate it. They also know there is a potential law suit waiting in the wings. The victim’s fear is of course is that any action will make things worse. If it does, note any further instances of inappropriate behaviour, because this now is really crossing the line into harassment.
There are always solutions and it’s up to us women to find them. Combining traditional coaching techniques to restore confidence, self-esteem and general healing is vital. But there also needs to be a focus on strategies to highlight these issues within organisations in a way that will allow victims to be heard. Decision makers will not only be forced to take note, but to act, before it’s too late for all parties.
Why? Because no one else will! And the lipstick jungle will go on.
This continues my series of bullying by women in the work place. Please see previous posts: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant, The Lipstick Jungle, Mascara Mafia , The Petticoat Polemic
If you need support with bullying and harassment – get in touch.
Dorothy thank you for this clear and helpful advice to women who are the targets of bullies.
I agree with you that it’s essential to take responsibility for prompt action. I also think your comments about emotional balance or a ‘business neutral’ approach are really important.
Being targeted by a bully can throw anyone off balance, but responding from a victim mentality is likely to precipitate more rather than less bullying. That’s not to blame the target – bullying is not acceptable behaviour. However, bullies will choose easy targets, and maintaining and building personal emotional resilience makes it easier to respond effectively.
Thanks Ann for your comment. I agree all the people I spoke to say that they wish they had taken action earlier. Knowledge can be a very powerful tool and just establishing that bullying is taking place and the degree of severity will allow victims to trust their own instincts and then formulate a plan to deal with it. Business neutral is a difficult state to achieve, but we women have to practise getting there.
Another great post for an essential topic, well done Dorothy.
I like your fast-paced and impactful writing.
I also very much enjoy having one subject developed at length in a series and fostering discussions.
I have never experienced bullying at work (in my family, as the 3rd little duck, yes, but that’s another story.
One of the main reason is that I’ve always been an entrepreneur. It’s easier to really chose the business partners and relationships that are supportive and positive, and detach yourself from the negatives, or respond with assertivity given by your freedom and independence.
So, my first reaction to your latest post was a misunderstanding of the title:
“Get Me Out Of Here” I thought it meant “Get Me Out of The Corporate World ”
I am meeting more and more women who are “Corporate Refugees”, escaping from the Corporate World and blossoming since they’re self-emplyed or business owners.
I recommend the excellent blog from Lynn Harris, ” The Unwritten Rules”, where she dedicates one page to the stories of these
It would be interesting to know how many, among your readers are “Corporate Refugees”?
I already know one, YOU Dorothy!
And also Jane Perdue, @thehrgoddess
How many more to come?
Keep the good work, looking forward next one!
Milles mercis Marion for your wonderful comment. I think there are many corporate refugees – as the Forbes research suggests who just feel ill at ease in the business world making other options appear very attractive. Bullying is a contributory factor for sure in some cases. All the women I was in contact with left that world and while some were working as freelancers or were self employed, others had gone into environments that they believed would be less harsh. Happily I have never been bullied personally, but I have witnessed what happens. It is a profoundly damaging procees and has left life long scars.
I would like to see the bullying behaviours that drive women out of the workplace corrected , so that they have real career choices and opportunities.
Thanks for continuing the dialogue on such an important topic. I especially like your comprehensive recommendations on solving the bullying problems–solutions that include all the stakeholders.
I have experienced and witnessed (as an HR professional) bullying in the workplace and became a “corporate refugee” 13 years ago. Unfortunately, in my case, 99% of the bullying came from other women. You’re right, those scars do run deep.
It has only been in the past few years that I have wrestled some of those inner demons to the ground and developed wonderful, trusting relationships with other women. It would have been great to have your advice many years ago. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to hear it.
Thanks Mary for your comment. Suggestions on tackling the issues can be helpful in some cases, but as you say the individual has to be open. I like the idea of reframing the experience against legal or ethical benchmarks. Regaining trust in one’s instincts I have observed can be very empowering especially combined with practical daily steps to deal with any presenting issues. Whether this will help stop a femlale brain drain from corporate life – it’s too early to tell!
Good advice! And I especially liked the bullet point: “Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.”
Thanks Beverly – yes that is important. Toleration levels to poor and abusive behaviour can vary enormously from one individual to another depending on their personalities and even family background. This gives the individual the possibility to do a reality check. They might find themselves saying ” This behaviour transgresses ACAS guidelines ( for example) in x areas and is actually highly abusive ” Facts talk!
Great post Dorothy and I too appreciate the continuing depth you are bringing to this topic.
A few things stand out for me in particular.
That the traditional support strategy focuses on healing rather than speaking up for women is part of what keeps this kind of dynamic in place. Taking a stand for yourself and speaking up are essential to healing my opinion because in doing so you reclaim your power. The techniques you offer here are great.
Somehow I think standing up and speaking up would be the natural approach when coaching men in this situation. What do you think?
So what if we cry. I think any form of tears get labeled as an “emotional meltdown”. I get teary sometimes when I am extremely frustrated. That doesn’t mean I am having an emotional breakdown. Our culture teaches men men that crying is a sign of weakness and that belief pervades the corporate world. Just because a woman cries doesn’t mean she is melting down – it means she is human. If there wasn’t such a stigma attached I believe the moment of tears (and perhaps even the intensity of the emotion in the moment) would likely pass quickly and we could get on with the facts of the situation. Could it be that the combination of judgment and resulting shame along with the inability to deal with/allow for a normal range of human emotion actually continues to “fertilize the soil” for bullying of women to continue?
2 great points Susan – let’s throw it open to the floor!
Is there a place for tears in the work place? My own thoughts are that there can be, depending on certain situations – death, tragedy or other humanitarian misfortune. On a routine basis in response to workplace situations- I personally would say not. This is for 2 reasons :
– many of my contacts tell me that being over come with emotion is usually because someone has suffered in silence, waiting for others to second guess a situation over a long period of time and they simply become overwrought at the injustice of it all. For me that is not a satisfactory substitute for ongoing constructive dialogue.
– regular emotional scenes serve to camouflage real issues which perhaps might warrant tears which then don’t get the attention they deserve . Remember “the crying wolf” syndrome I mentioned in my last post.
I would coach men also to deal with pratical issues related to bullying as well as healing aspects. There is no doubt that the indirect downside of focusing on the moving on and self care issues, enables bullies to repeat offend and organisations to be let off the hook.
What does everyone else think?.
Great challenge. After many years of getting to grips with toxic workplaces, my current position is that you respond best when fully Present, and that means choosing to own and use your personal power.
For me it follows that responding emotionally to most workplace situations is ultimately unhelpful, however difficult they may be. Sure, go off to the rest room and have a good cry if you need to, but beware of giving away your personal power in public tears.
Balancing that, it’s never acceptable for organisations to condone and cover up bullying, and even in the UK, where we have anti-bullying legislation, it’s still far too prevelant.
In my HR years, I have taken on and removed bullies. It isn’t easy. Be prepared for a huge backwash, denial and sheer defiance. But, HR practitioners, please stand your ground. If you have a board level input, it makes things easier. If not, get your line manager onside and press on. It has to stop.
Thanks Ann for your thoughts. Bullying in the workplace is indeed challenging and there doesn’t seem to be one easy way to deal with it. As more and more women enter corporate life, a way has to be found and as women it’s down to us to do exactly that!
I have scars from both male and female bullying. Last one was from a man and I almost ended in a hospital. HR had good practice on this and it was involved but generally it can’t do much even if the bully had many victims in the company, especially if it’s highly positioned person. The organisation can eventually succeed to get rid of this person but it’s a veery long way.
Bullying from a women was not so hard as this from a man, but women bully other women for “stupid” reasons, such as good shoes. Man will bully you if you threaten them professionally- you’re better. And if you’re better than a woman professionally and “wear better shoes”, than be carefull.
Thank you for talking of female bullying, because I think women are not sucessfull in business as men are for this reason also. It’s just not professional to behave lake that. We should be pushing each other, seeing better ones as rolemodels and learning from them and not trying to destroy them professionally.
I liked your suggestion that women need more training how to behave in professional life. We can not expect to have some super HR departments that will rescue us when we call. That’s impossible.
I’m proud of myself because I survived various types of bullying. I’m thankfull to the first bully in my life because I left the company and joined another one that offered me better profesional development. I it wasn’t for her, I would have stayed on the same job probably until now and be less competent than now :-).
Ivana – thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences but happy that you gained something positive from them and were able to grow as a result. It’s a tricky area and one I have learned is so much more prevelant thanI ever realised. I appreciate your openness.
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Many people bully because they are upset with themselves. They think if others are equally miserable it will make him/her happier. Bullies are often jealous so if she or he bullies they feel more superior; or they bully to be “cool.”
All of this behaviour is inexcusable – needs to be tackled – and you’ve given some great strategies to do just this here Dorothy. Thank you.
Hi Eildh – thanks for your comment. I agree bullies are not confident with inner issues. But have to be dealt with never the less.
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